“Raya and the Last Dragon” Offers a Story About Trusting Others – Movie Review

raya and the last dragon disney review
Young Raya and Namaari (Image: Screengrab)

Raya and the Last Dragon is an enjoyable movie promoting the importance of trust and coming together for the greater good. Also, Raya is most definitely a queer Disney Princess. There’s just no other explanation.

From screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim along with directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, Raya the Last Dragon is Disney’s first animated movie starring characters of Southeast Asian descent and a plot set in a SEA-inspired fictional world called Kumandara. Due to the dragon-shaped river, Kumandara is separated into Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. There are numerous set pieces and cultures for viewers to enjoy as Raya and her friends collect the pieces of the magical dragon gem. It’s kind of like a D&D campaign.

The movie opens with Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) giving us an important backstory. 500 years ago, Kumandra had humans and dragons living together. However, when the dark creatures called the Druun attacked, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. They left behind a magical dragon gem that’s protected by the people of the Heart kingdom. The rest of the regions want the gem because they think it’s responsible for all of the prosperity Heart experiences.

We get to meet a young Raya being trained as a guardian of the dragon gem by her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). According to Benja, the people of Kumandara can still live together as they did in the past. His willingness to be friendly leads to him inviting everyone for dinner. Of course, things go wrong when a young Namaari betrays Raya’s trust. The events cause the gem to break and the Druun return to end humanity. We then get a six-year time jump and see an older Raya continuing her journey to find the last dragon, a water-creature named Sisu (Awkwafina).

Sisu defeated the Drunn once. So, she can do it again, right? Well, Raya realizes that her mission isn’t going to be easy as she had hoped. What follows is an action-packed and quite hilarious adventure with Raya and Sisu traveling across Kumandara to collect the pieces of the orb and finding allies along the way.

The main narrative theme in Raya and the Last Dragon is trust. I understood Raya’s unwillingness to trust others. Namaari’s betrayal was incredibly impactful on Raya’s childhood. The trauma molded Raya’s personality as a young adult. On the other hand, Sisu’s all about trusting others, even to her detriment. Such opposite perspectives made for some interesting moments between the two characters.

And while Raya learned how to trust again by the end of the movie, I think the writers could have done a better job of handling such a complex theme. In my opinion, Raya’s arc felt too similar to how Steven Universe addresses heavy situations. Teaching kids to trust others is a nice message. However, it’s also important to let kids know that certain people are not worthy of their trust. Some people are always searching for (vulnerable) trustworthy people to prey on. But I guess that’s a conversation grownups can have with the kids in their family while watching such a film.

At least, Raya and the Last Dragon showed that for you to trust someone again, they should be willing to change for the better and realize their mistake. Namaari (Gemma Chan) wanted to do the right thing. She was just waiting for Raya to completely trust her again.

And while we’re talking about Raya and Namaari, they have the friends-to-enemies-to-lovers arc going on for them. It reminded me of Adora and Catra’s relationship. While there are still people out there who think Elsa from Frozen isn’t actually queer (and they are right to have such an opinion because of Disney continuing to remain ambiguous whenever Elsa is mentioned), I think it’s going to be quite tough for a lot of people to watch Raya and Namaari’s relationship and not think, “Are these two in love?”

Even Kelly Marie Tran is fully supportive of Raya and Namaari being a romantic couple. And while I get that there’s still a very long way for Disney to go when it comes to offering queer representation via the incredibly powerful Disney Princess brand, I think there’s an argument to be made that certain creatives working at the popular studio want viewers to pick up on the queerness occurring through particular characters even if the House of Mouse can’t be more blatant about it yet. 

In my opinion, at least, with films like Frozen and Raya and the Last Dragon, said queer undertones are being portrayed by the lead characters and going against the queer-coded Disney villain trope. So, while not perfect, it’s still progress.

Coming back to the film, the voice cast is amazing across the board and the action sequences are dynamic. The sword fight between Raya and Namaari near the end is powerful! So, good!

I will say I was surprised to not encounter a single song during the main story. Disney Princess songs are iconic. And yet the writers of Raya and the Last Dragon were able to effectively showcase character arcs and plot developments without making any of the characters burst into song and dance to usher in a montage. Not having such musical moments helped this film feel very different from your usual Disney fare. I’m impressed.

Another thing I liked about this movie is that it didn’t have any “special” characters. What I mean by this is that Raya’s not born with superpowers, chosen by destiny, has a special bloodline, or was cursed at birth. She’s just someone who wants to do the right thing and reunite with her father. The same goes for Namaari and the rest of Raya’s group. Heck, even Sisu doesn’t have cool powers of her own like her four dragon siblings. The main cast has a lot of heart, though. And I guess, that’s what matters the most when the chips are down.

Ceratin moments can get quite dark, though. There’s a lot of trauma going around in Raya’s group. So, keep that in mind if you have little ones to take care of during a viewing party.

I highly recommend watching Raya and the Last Dragon. I’m also looking forward to Disney continuing to give us animated stories around various cultures and lore.

Raya and the Last Dragon was made available on Disney+ Premier Access and theaters on Friday, March 5, 2021.

Have you watched it yet?

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Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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